Exploring The “CRAZY”: Looking Deeper Than Labels In Mental Health

I frequently meet great people who identify as “bi-polar” or are labeled with “schizoid personality disorder,” often times both labels have been assigned amongst an array of other diagnoses such as schizophrenia, borderline and ADHD. When I ask them, “How long have you been diagnosed”?  Some of them say “forever”, and/or they often give me an age like “since I was 12.”

dsm5Many people place judgement at this point and see them as permanently damaged with a life sentence of living in chaos due to labels in mental health. Even worse, many of the diagnosed individuals place their identity in “being” a label/diagnosis and become more vulnerable to stigma and discrimination.

It is no surprise that one might find their identity in a diagnoses as this is fully supported by the medical model of health care that is all-too-often inappropriately utilized in mental health services across America.

For example, if you “are” a type 1 diabetic that is something that you cannot control, for the most part.  A doctor can pinpoint an incurable illness or disease and the patient receives an answer with a plan of care.  There is never a need to ask “why?” because there is nothing we can change to reverse or “heal” the illness.

In social work and health care we often become bitter and burnt out with the same old problems.  The revolving door in emergency departments and mental health units is a timeless joke heard across the country by both professionals and clients (sadly).  It is also the epitome of a lack of asking “why?”

When we fail to ask why then we fail to address the root problem and in turn we fail to provide quality services.  When we fail to provide quality services then we do not follow through with equipping clients with the skill-sets for mental and emotional well being.  Instead, we make the assumption that an individual is “too damaged” or a “hopeless cause” because they have continually failed treatment.

We must remember that a mental health diagnosis is nothing more than a description of symptoms.  In addressing mental health, such symptoms are generally a list of behaviors, attitudes and actions that decrease an individual’s ability to maintain a feeling of safety, security and happiness.

So, when someone tells me that they were diagnosed at age 12, I simply ask “why?”  Most of the time they are shocked by the question because nobody has ever taken the time to listen.  They usually struggle offer a response.  At that time, I re-phrase the question by asking, “What happened when you were 12?”

I have not done extensive trials or studies on this, but for the past two years I have specifically focused on asking “why” or “what happened” in my work as a Crisis Worker and 100% of the time they give me a very direct answer.  For example: “I was beaten and raped by my dad when I was 12” or “I didn’t have parents and my only family was my grandma and she died then.”

Instead of focusing on improving emotional wellness and family dynamics, we settle for the poor practice of pushing pills.  Instead of offering validation followed by guidance, we belittle and talk down or, even worse, don’t talk at all.  My challenge for you is to inspire hope in the hopeless and simply listen.  There are lots to be heard and learned, even from those who just don’t seem to “get it.”  Everyone needs to be shown the way before they can start on the right path.  Be the one person that it takes to shine a light on the hard work of personal growth and emotional intelligence.

There is always a reason behind behavior. Instead of judging, lets ask “Why?”  This is the starting point for providing Trauma Informed Care which is now being trickled down from the federal level by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Domestic Violence is Witnessed by Children Far More Than We Know


Imagine a child watching domestic violence between their parents. It’s not a stretch to think of how scary that must be for her – the people who are supposed to love and protect her are showing just the opposite. One would hope that external forces would come to play that would help change that. But a new piece of research about to be published in the journal Psychology of Violence tells us that the chances of intervention are far less than most of us would hope for.

Researcher Sherry Hamby from The University of the South comes out with some powerful statistics. In more than a third of the cases that her team researched, the physical injury occurred yet only one in four cases resulted in a police report. Children were hurt in about one in 75 cases. As Dr. Hamby notes, there is a link between witnessing domestic violence and childhood mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, becoming a victim in teenage dating, and diminished success at school. There is also a link between domestic violence and bullying.

As I read this material, I was reminded of a 9-1-1 tape that I heard some years ago while undergoing some training. The tape is chilling. You hear a young girl desperately seeking the help of the police while her mother’s partner is assaulting her mother. At one point the child screams out to her mother that the police are coming. Her mother tells her essentially to shut up invalidating the efforts that the child is making to get help. The mother was right at one level as the threat of imminent arrival by the police may have caused the assailant to be even more violent. But the desperation in the child’s voice is one of those moments that stick with you.

In the world of child protection, we must recall that we tend to see only the more significant cases or the ones where the child has either managed the courage to disclose or, more often, does so accidentally. In reality, a disclosure will rarely be evidence that a single event of domestic violence occurred. The child has likely witnessed far more.

Hamby’s research goes further. It tells us that we must let go of the notion that domestic violence is a curse of the lower incomes and rooted in poverty. Her research found that 28% occurred in households with annual incomes under $20,000; 30% in households earning $20,000-50,000; 18% in the $50,000-75,000 bracket and 24% with incomes about $75,000. Domestic violence is an equal opportunity curse it would seem.

In my own work, I have seen frightened children scared to tell what goes on in their households. Worse, however, are the children who feel that there is nothing to report because it is so normal. Either way, when child protection becomes involved, we must remember that involving the criminal justice system is important as a way to hold the assailant accountable. But that does not make the journey better.

The victims – the other caregiver or parent and the children all need to learn how to create a new normal over time that includes health, safety, and respect along with a different set of problem solving skills. Just getting the assailant out of the house does not make it better. Supports are needed long term – remember that most women need between 8-12 times before they will leave a domestically violent relationship for good. Imagine the impact on the children.

What If Attitudes Don’t Really Matter In Creating Change?

Attitude is everything, they say. What if I said, I don’t think so? Consider this, as long as it remains inside my head, my attitude means nothing. It’s only when I speak it, or act on it, that it begins to matter. Let’s say I hate orange. Until I start insulting people for wearing orange, destroying orange things that aren’t mine or, if I’m influential enough, I stop people from wearing orange or making orange things, no one knows I hate orange.

An orangeEven if I love orange, no one knows until I start favouring those wearing orange, smashing others’ stuff that isn’t orange, and insisting everything has to be orange. A lot of time and energy goes into changing attitudes, believe me, I’ve done it for a living.

What happens when we look beyond the attitude to its outward manifestation such as written or spoken language, actions, and behaviours? What if we recognise that it’s what we say and do that matters, not what we actually think?

A new question then arises: What governs the connection between attitudes, words and behaviours? Based on books I’ve read and a workshop I did in 2013*, I suggest three things impact attitudes:

  • Information
  • Experience
  • Values

For the sake of simplicity, let’s keep with the orange example.


If I am given some information about orange, like it’s scientifically proven to make people like me more, I may change my attitude about it. Or I may still dislike it, but think twice about banning orange t-shirts. This example depends on my ego, which we’ll touch on more soon.


If I go to an orange-themed party and have a wicked time, I may give orange the benefit of the doubt, whether or not I change my mind about it. If the party was lame though, I’ll probably blame orange over my poor social skills.


By far the most impacting influence on whether I speak or act on my attitude about orange are my values. Values are like meta-attitudes that pervade all aspects of my worldview. If an attitude is a roof, my values are the sky.

If my values are negative and anti-social — individualistic, ego-centric, self-gratifying etc — I’ll more likely respond to my anti-orange attitude in ways that serve me rather than the common good. I’ll slag off your orange t-shirt and ban anything orange, just because it suits me.

If, however, my values are humanitarian — generous, collective, harm-preventing etc — I’ll think twice about commenting on your orange t-shirt. Sure, I may not like it but it’s not hurting me, but putting you down may hurt you. Perhaps I’ll ask you if you’ve ever considered wearing green. I’ll let orange have its place and avoid looking at it unless I absolutely have to.

Real life examples

A couple of real-life examples may help to test the validity of this consideration — which, by the way, I am just considering, by writing about it. I may end up disagreeing with myself

Gay marriage legalisation

Some would argue that the legalisation of gay marriage has been helped by a change in attitude about sexual orientation. It may have, but I think two values made more of an impact than attitude. The first value was “equality”, the lack of which became more and more obvious as the issue was pushed politically. The second value was that of “legalised monogamy”. Together, equality and a right to legal monogamy were the values that helped gay marriage become law, not a change of attitude towards people’s sexuality.

Workers with disabilities losing their jobs because of KFC’s restructuring policy

It’s easy — and perhaps slightly simplistic — to argue that Kentucky Fried Chicken have suddenly developed a bad attitude towards disability. Were that so, they would have never employed disabled people. The driver behind this policy change is values, not attitude. The KFC policy for all staff to be capable of all duties is based on a value, after which they’ve named the policy — “all star level” staffing. KFC are acting on a value that all employees need to be equally capable of all tasks. This will impact on more than just disabled employees.

So what?

The danger of turning to attitude as the cause of unfair behaviour misses the deeper values-based motivation behind what we say and do. It also allows people to legitimately dismiss a conversation about change, based on a possibly very true defense that you are incorrect about their attitude about something.

Next time you think you’ve uncovered a bad attitude that needs changing, you may want to consider instead a deeper discussion — one about values and how they influence what is said and done.

* The book that influenced my thinking is Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. The workshop was run by Altris Ltd.

What is Social Inclusion

arms-around-the-world-promoSocial Inclusion has become a bit of a buzz-phrase in society today. “I’m not a racist, but…” has developed into almost a joke for those who cannot accept that everyone operates through prejudices on one level or another.

Yet, it is still a common phrase used to excuse a person’s thoughts on another culture. As a Social Worker, you may have encountered prejudices from your Service Users, and it may even have been directed at you. Racism is still deeply embedded into our society, but your job is in an important position to push for change.

A definition of Social Inclusion

Most agree that social inclusion can be defined as a number of affirmative action’s undertaken in order to reverse the social exclusion of individuals or groups in our society; hence it is important to understand what social exclusion is. In this article we view the impact of the “lack of social inclusion” and its consequences.

The lack of social inclusion or racism could be viewed as being seemingly inherent across the world. Some people desire a homogenous society in which to live. Simply going on holiday to a country where people who look like you are rare can result in stares, questions, photographs and even rejection from a society that simply doesn’t understand you. In the UK, the media plays a big part in our opinions on people who come from elsewhere to live here. We are constantly bombarded with the idea that the UK is crowded, that we simply cannot accept any more people. We are force fed huge exaggerations that anyone who wasn’t born in the UK comes here to steal your healthcare, your benefits and convert everyone to their religions and ways of life. Anyone with the ability to look outside knows that this simply isn’t the case.

Nina Davuluri
Nina Davuluri

One recent and very public example of the lack of social inclusion occurred in America after the winner of the annual Miss America competition was revealed to be a lady of Indian descent from New York. This case highlighted the many uses of social media, and how it can be used to raise awareness as much as it can spread hate.

Many broadcasters focused on the mass of racist, derogatory, and rather ridiculous complaints about the New Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri, on Social Media. Some accused her of winning too close to 9/11 and that this opened up wounds for the “real American people”. The winner was born and raised in America with no mention of her religious beliefs, yet because of the colour of her skin and her heritage, she should be implicated in a tragedy. There is a level of ignorance and segregation clearly visible in these times that would otherwise have been kept between the commenter and their closest.

Closer to home, many of us have to suffer the propaganda of the English Defence League, or EDL. Formed in 2009 in Luton, this is a far-right street protest community who oppose Islamism, Sharia Law and extremism. They are against social inclusion. They have been described by many as Islam phobic and often take to the streets inciting violence. They are linked to the BNP and have around 30,000 active members at the moment. They were recently denied the right to stage a protest at Tower Hamlets- a large Muslim community- for fear of more violence. Although everyone has the right to freedom of speech and not everyone is comfortable with the UK becoming a multicultural country, the EDL have gained notoriety and a strong opposition from those trying to promote peaceful integration for everyone.

Of course, the saying goes “one bad apple spoils the whole barrel” but this simplistic view has a vast impact on social inclusion. Many people learned about Islam after the USA and UK were under attack from terrorists. First impressions have a tendency to stick and the fear created was unlike any other we have experienced in our lifetimes. When Western Countries were subject to extremists and terrorist acts, we became defensive. Islam was not a well-known subject for many, so the extremists became the faces of Islam, the celebrities of the Muslim community. It took a lot of time before any non-extremists were allowed to come forward to defend the Muslim faith. Slowly, the public is being shown the true version of the faith while starting to trust and respect those who enter into their communities. But, a lot of damage has been done and differences will always cause conflict.

Racism and cultural differences have a long history and are the main reason for fears, conflicts and segregation, resulting in the effects of a negative view of social inclusion. It is easy for us to accept everyone, all over the world, regardless of age, skin colour, religion or culture. But, many people do not. To understand this, you have to analyse and accept the almost anchored forms of racism and persecution that have existed, and been considered normal, throughout the history of the entire world. The first British people who arrived in Japan were killed by Samurai because they did not know to bow to them when they passed in the street and were instantly executed.

So, as a Social Worker, what can you do to challenge and combat these thoughts and feelings, which can have a profound impact on a person’s identity and life? How do you support social inclusion?

Firstly, you are expected to continuously acknowledge, recognise and confront all forms of racism, within all of the institutions related to and relevant to your position. Social Work, alongside all Public services, including the Police, are subject to the Race Relations Act of 2000. Public Authorities must promote equality at all times. During your training, you would have been made aware of this and the Human Rights Act of 1998. Social Inclusion are inherent in these laws.

Institutional or Structural Racism is ultimately your focus which is defined as any social, economic, educational or political policies that discriminate or give preferences to one group or another. In working with multiple agencies, you will have seen the hierarchy of society and its vital to understand that race is not a Biological concept. It is a social construction, and the lack of positive steps towards social inclusion leads to further negative impacts for groups of people.

You may experience racist attitudes or beliefs in the workplace through a Service User or from an agency you are collaborating with. It is necessary to challenge these ideologies- even if they are your own. You may have entered the profession with good intentions, yet have realised you are discriminating against someone or a group of people as a result of differences. This could be as simple as not allowing equal time for discussion during a meeting, not providing the same levels of supervision or support to a colleague, or a Service User. Through your own personal growth and Professional Development, you can challenge your own ideas and those ideas of others when equality is not being promoted.

As a Social Worker, you have the ability to build relationships within communities and within your workplace. You have the power to make a change in society for the better. It is your responsibility to recognise the existence of inequality in your personal life, professional life and on a societal level. You can promote understanding and educate people on the many different cultures that live together and mostly in peace.

Racism is just one form of  the lack of social inclusion. There are many others ways in which individuals and groups are excluded in society, and it is important to focus on a person as a holistic being and to ensure that any assessment and interventions by you as a social worker takes into account all of a person’s needs.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Rose Theatre

Does Putting Children in Jail Solve Anything?


During a single year, an estimated 2.1 million youth under the age of 18 are arrested in the United States. When we think of mass incarceration, we cannot just think of adults. Countless boys and girls are funneled from schools and neighborhoods to the juvenile justice system each year, often followed by what seems to be the inevitable entry into the adult criminal justice world and its facilities.

What are the effects of the “School-to-prison” pipeline? Students of color face harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated. Black and Hispanic students represent more than 70 percent of those involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement. Currently, African Americans make up two-fifths and Hispanics one-fifth of confined youth today.

According to recent data by the Department of Education, African American students are arrested far more often than their white classmates. The data showed that 96,000 students were arrested and 242,000 referred to law enforcement by schools during the 2009-10 school year. Of those students, black and Hispanic students made up more than 70 percent of arrested or referred students. Harsh school punishments, from suspensions to arrests, have led to high numbers of youth of color coming into contact with the juvenile-justice system and at an earlier age.

African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison. According to the Sentencing Project, even though African American juvenile youth are about 16 percent of the youth population, 37 percent of their cases are moved to criminal court and 58 percent of African American youth are sent to adult prisons.

A longitudinal study conducted in Chicago tracking 35,000 former public school students showed that:

  • Youth that went to prison were 39% less likely to finish high school than other kids from the same neighborhood. Even young offenders who weren’t imprisoned were better off; they were 13% more likely to finish high school than their incarcerated peers.
  •  Young offenders who were incarcerated were a staggering 67% more likely to be in jail (again) by the age of 25 than similar young offenders who didn’t go to prison.
  • Incarcerated youth were more likely to commit “homicide, violent crime, property crime and drug crimes” than those that didn’t serve time.

It is important for us to come to a general consensus about how we want to treat our nation’s children. There are countless policies and procedures in place that, either purposely or inadvertently, burden youth with consequences intended for adults. In the state of North Carolina, 16 and 17 year olds are automatically charged as adults. Additionally, depending on the crime, a child can be charged as an adult as of age 13. Our minimum age to enter juvenile court is 6. We are funneling children into the world of mass incarceration, and arguably in some cases, we are handpicking who will suffer that fate.

Researchers have estimated that it costs society 1.5 to 1.8 million dollars to care for one habitual offender from adolescence through adulthood. So even if we cannot agree on this issue in terms of social justice, surely we could agree that spending an exorbitant amount of money to keep youth justice-involved might not be the best allocation of our limited funds.

Nancy Humphreys Urges Political Activism for Social Workers

Scores of students and former students of the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work gathered at the West Hartford Campus during the weekend to pay tribute to the venerable Nancy A. Humphreys who is retiring from her tenure as founder and director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work. The occasion was the 18th Annual Campaign School held Friday and Saturday, April 4th and 5th continuing its mission to enhance the political skills of social workers.

Among her former students attending were: Pedro E. Segarra, the mayor of Hartford, and Deberey Hinchey, the mayor of Norwich. Segarra was elected the 66th mayor of Connecticut’s capital city in 2012 and Hinchey was recently elected as the first woman mayor in the city’s 350 year history. They were on hand to share how useful their social work skills are in managing their respective cities and to thank Dr. Humphreys for paving the way for their political careers.

Former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns made the trip from Brooklyn to express his appreciation for the work Humphreys is doing to promote political activism among social workers. He encouraged participants to seek opportunities to run for elected office. Other notables included State Rep. Christopher Donovan, a graduate of UConn School of Social Work, who served as speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives from 2009 until 2013; Daphne L. McClellan, executive director of the Maryland Chapter of NASW; Walter Kalman, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of NASW; Joanne Cannon, director of casework for U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy (CT) and a 2006 graduate of UConn School of Social Work; and Gabriel Botero, Jr., aide to U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal.

Nancy Humphreys

Nancy Humphreys’ stellar career has focused primarily on women’s issues and promoting political activism in social work. She earned her MSW from the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work in 1963 and her DSW from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1975. A past president of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) from 1979 until 1981, Humphreys founded the institute in 1995.

She currently directs and teaches in the Policy Practice concentration at the School of Social Work. She was dean and professor at the UConn School of Social Work from 1987 until 1995 and served as director and professor at Michigan State University’s School of Social Work from 1982 until 1987. An outstanding orator, Humphreys has spoken in every state in the United States, in every major city multiple times and extensively abroad.

Her message: social workers need to be involved in all phases of the political process. She gives three reasons. One, political activity is part of the profession’s mission to be both about helping people to change and working to change society. Second, she believes social workers are uniquely trained to serve in the political arena. And third, because federal, state and local policy-making and legislation increasingly has to do with social services issues, social workers’ knowledge, experience, and understanding of the social welfare system are essential to effective policy making. The bottom line is that if social workers are not willing to participate in politics we forfeit our right to complain about the fairness of the system.

During the two-day training participants were required to develop a five-year political plan that identified a goal and the steps needed to reach that goal. Participants received training in fundraising, strategic messaging, voter contact, and the functions and activities of political committees. Participants are encouraged to be active in the political arena. Some will work on campaigns and some will work in political offices. Many will start on paths that will end in electoral politics on all levels. These are places more social workers need to be.

The good news is that the institute will continue its work as Nancy and her partner Dr. Jo Nol begin a new chapter in their lives. Humphreys says she will take her retirement cues from Mr. Towns. She plans to devote the next three years to writing about her social work experiences. She will be succeeded by Tanya Rhodes-Smith, a former intern at the NAHIPSW who acted as the interim director during Dr. Humphreys’ sabbatical during the fall of 2010. Hats off to UConn School of Social Work Dean Salome Raheim for her role in keeping this important work alive.

The Role of Marijuana in The Baby Boomer’s Revolution

Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, lived in an era where experimentation with drug use was encouraged. The children of the 1960s who rocked out to the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and The Who, stood up for what they believed in and protested the Vietnam War, and joined the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury were part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Now, the 1960s “wild child” has aged, and this age cohort is part of a new revolution—the baby boomer’s revolution.

marijuana-1The baby boomer’s revolution refuses to become “elderly”; they refuse to be frail, isolated, or lonely.  They refuse to have someone tell them they must grow old. Their ways are not changing, and they are living out their life as they always have…with continued drug use.

The baby boomers lived during a time in United States history when popular culture accepted substance use. The popular culture of the 1960s -1970s has resulted in the majority of this age group having been exposed to substances at rates unlike any other age group. Marijuana use has increased among baby boomers over the past decade. From 2002 to 2012, marijuana use increased from 4.3% to 8% among boomers aged 50-54, 1.6% to 7.4% among boomers aged 55-59, and from 2.4% to 4.4% among individuals aged 60-64.

The legalization of marijuana supports the baby boomer’s revolution. We are beginning to see how this group is redefining what it means to be old, but what will the new elderly look like?

Research indicates that 62% of all adults over the age of 65 have several chronic conditions, and in fact, 23% of Medicare recipients have five or more chronic conditions. These chronic conditions, combined with substance use may complicate treatment or result in poor treatment outcomes.

The National Association of Social Workers states that “social workers’ primary responsibility is to promote the well­being of clients. In general, clients’ interests are primary.” As social workers, where do we stand on this issue? Do we embrace the baby boomer’s revolution? Do we embrace aging with choice, dignity, self-determination and subsequently, substance use? Or do we return to the status quo?

For more posts like this, follow me on Twitter @karenwhiteman


Social Work and Technology: Past, Present and Future

Social work has always used tools of the time period to help those in need. We are the helping hand, the caring voice, and the ready help for those in need, but a common misconception is that we cannot tell the difference between a computer chip and potato chip.

Quite the contrary, being soft-hearted does not mean we are also soft headed. Social workers have always embraced technological change through out history.Though the official profession of social work has only existed since the 17th century, people have been using the tools of the time to help those in need. These tools are often technological innovations which have taken many forms over time.

Social Work in the Pastabaman2500 B.C. Ancient Hebrews used mandatory tithes to benefit the poor, it could be said this was the origin of the first social workers who used tithing to minister to the needy. This later evolved into what we now consider charitable contributions to the Church.

500 B.C. The first use of the word philanthropy appears in Prometheus bound; Phil=Love, Anthro= meaning man. Maybe some the first written conceptualization of giving service to those in need, in reference to Prometheus giving man fire and blind hope. (The second being characteristic of social workers)

373 B.C. Ancient India, King Ashok helps create some of the first known official social services, the abacus was used to keep track of donations.

325 A.D. Emperor Constantine the 1st legitimizes the Christian church which then sets up a variety of social services including; elder care, hospitals, orphanages.

1817 A.D. Elizabeth Fry, know as the angel of the prisons attempts to reform the prison system of England. Thanks to her work treatment of prisoners became more humane. 

1884: Arnold Toynbee, one of the first to notice the economic disparity caused by the industrial revolution. His contributions inspired others to developed a map to visualize the data they collected on poverty. A precursor to modern projects like healthy cities which can be used to help improve social services.

 1889: Jane Addams, the settlement houses in the United States. Pioneer in the social work field. Hull House maps and papers they reported on the effects of concentration of different ethnicity and their living conditions, about labor circumstances in the sweatshops, about child labor.

1985: The book, “Computers in human services” comes out and brings to the forefront need for computer use in social services and counseling. Soon after this use of technology exploded, social services starts to integrated technology into practice.

What does this mean for you now?

allthetechCurrently social work as a profession receives a failing grade when it comes to technology literacy; we do not teach it in schools according to a research study by the National Institute of Health in  2011. Without the ability to integrate and use new technology, we will fall behind a profession. We will neither be able to help our clients or ourselves in the modern era.

So now we are in the modern era, there are so many new technologies every day it can be overwhelming. There are 1,157,279 Apps for download on the itunes store, and there are countless pieces of software available. Not to mention the differences between a Mac and PC, Android and Apple, Google chrome, internet explorer, firefox etc. Now if you further want to complicate things, you can inject the famous social work ethics which then restricts you from using certain pieces of software/hardware because of the actions of the company that made it. (See Firefox debacle)

How to move forward?

bmanYou need to learn how  to effectively utilize these technologies for our clients and the organizations we work for. Social work is often seen as a profession of technological Neanderthals. This myth is partially true and comes from the fact that we often work in underfunded organizations. We often end up using technology that is outdated and not completely functional, whereas many times other professions are using the latest and greatest on the market.

It is true that new technology is expensive, if we do not have an understanding of its value it becomes hard to justify this expense to the organizations we work in. Unlike other sectors, we do not have the luxury of adopting the newest technology because it is new. Unless you have a firm understanding of how useful technology can be such as the time and costs it can save, convincing the CFO that you need new laptops maybe a challenge.

So what does that mean for you? Its time for you to learn! Social Workers should be Tech savvy, if not experts. The time and cost it can save means more clients helped with less work for us. We work in a profession that is perpetually underfunded and over worked, and isn’t it time we come up with some solutions?

Here is where I come in, I will post/doodle every week about new technologies that can help you. More importantly, I will give you information about how technology can help you everyday and how you can learn to use it to meet your needs. We will also touch on ethical questions that come up with using technology in social work such as the use your clients data and whether technology is a barrier or an aid for your client. What are your thoughts?

Child Abuse Prevention Month: Interview with Students Against Violence Everywhere

Students Against Violence Everywhere
Students Against Violence Everywhere

In March 2013, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation declaring the month of April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. In addition, the first week of April is National Youth Violence Prevention Week. As an annual observance started by Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE), National Youth Violence Prevention Week enhances awareness on youth violence and creates discussion on how to prevent violence before it starts. In honor of this observance, SAVE and VetoViolence are co-sponsoring an Ask the Expert Facebook Forum event which began on April 7th and will end on April 11th.

VetoViolence is a creation by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) as a way to help increase awareness and adoption of evidenced base approaches by practitioners and other professionals in their efforts to prevent violence. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Jim Wise who is a school social worker in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and he is also the Board Chair for the National SAVE organization. This is what Jim had to say about this important month especially for us social workers:

SWH: Tell us a bit about your background, organization, and the work you do in youth violence prevention.

SAVE:   My name is Jim Wise and I am a School Social Worker in Chapel Hill NC.  I am also the Chair of the Board of Directors for National SAVE as well as being SAVE chapter advisor at Chapel Hill High School.  I have been involved in SAVE as a chapter advisor since 1996 and have worked with the National SAVE Youth Advisory Board since 1999.

SAVE was started 25 years ago in response to the shooting of a high school student named Alex Orange.  Classmates at West Charlotte High School came together the following Monday and decided that they did not want to let his death be in vain.  To make a difference they started Students Against Violence Everywhere.

Since that day, SAVE has been student driven and lead. We have chapters in elementary, middle and high schools as well as college chapters and some in community organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs.  Each chapter decides on the issues that are most relevant in their setting and does education and prevention activities to address them.  We look at 3 areas for SAVE chapters being involved in their schools and communities, Crime Prevention, Conflict Management and Service Projects.  In some schools the issues may about bullying, cyberbullying, in others it may be fights or theft or vandalism.  Whatever the issue is we look to students to be involved in possible solutions and working as part of those solutions.  Thus our motto which is “Youth Voices, Grown Up Choices”.

SWH: What are the biggest challenges and barriers to reducing violence against youth? 

SAVE:  One of the biggest challenges is finding ways to include youth in the efforts. We feel strongly that any meaningful changes need to include youth every step of the way, from problem identification to possible solutions and especially at the point where programs and initiatives are being implemented.  If we fail to have the input of young people at any of these steps we are likely to miss out on important information and opportunity.  If youth feel that they are part of a solution they are much more likely to take ownership and work to make solutions successful.

SWH: How does your organization engage and involve social workers or plan to engage in the future?

SAVE:  Social Workers are chapter advisors for some of our chapters.  We also will use local resources and experts when chapters are working on projects where education, support and additional information may be needed.  Many  chapters will invite Social Workers and other staff from local Human Services agencies to attend meetings and share the work that their groups do or act as resources in other ways.

SWH: How does the Facebook Forum to Ask an Expert work, and what other activities have been planned to help create awareness? 

SAVE: With so many young people today getting information via social media that it provides a very available forum on a national level for them to ask questions and receive quality information and answers.  We need to continue to look to our young people and where they are getting their ideas from and work to access those platforms.

Many chapters have activities planned in their schools and communities and will be inviting school and local leaders to be part of them as well as reaching out to news media in their local communities to raise awareness.

SWH: What can a regular person do to help with the prevention of youth violence?

SAVE: All of us can be aware of what is going on in our communities and take time to be in touch with young people around us.  Any time we can show concern and interest for the well being of young people that is going to have a positive impact.  Everyone can also look for ways to support positive groups and activities in their local communities.  Anytime we can engage young people in prosocial activities we are building resilience and reducing the likelihood they will become involved in negative and potentially violent behaviors.

Interested in starting a SAVE chapter for your area, please visit http://nationalsave.org/chapter-tools/chapter-registration and for more information on this week’s awareness event see below:

Youth Violence Prevention Forum
When: April 7-11, 2014
Where: VetoViolence’s Facebook page
Co-sponsor: Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE)
Why focus on youth violence? Youth violence is widespread in the US—homicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24.  Each year, youth homicides and assault-related injuries result in an estimated $16 billion in combined medical and work loss costs.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of SAVE 

Republican SCOTUS Deals Another Blow to Democracy

In past administrations, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has been known for its role in being one branch of a three prong checks and balance system whose purpose is to prevent an imbalance of power within the government. Past supreme courts primarily remained apolitical while handing down decisions based on the spirit and the letter of the law even when it was not popular with the majority of Americans.

Official_roberts_CJThis is evidenced by a series of decisions that led to desegregation of schools, equal rights for women, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to name a few. However, the Robert’s court, one of George W. Bush last gifts to the American people, led by Chief Justice John Roberts  continues to use its power to dilute the rights of the Republic in order to reallocate those rights to the richest 600 people in America.

The last ruling by SCOTUS in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission in a 5 to 4 split removes campaign spending limits placed on donors. Republicans hale this ruling as a win because now rich donors can spend money to support candidates advancing their causes all over the United States without running into any donor caps. Democrats are mounting protest against the decision because they believe its will give money more speech over millions of Americans who can not afford to be heard.

Dr. Kristie Holmes, a social worker and professor, running for Congress in California has experienced first hand the challenges qualified candidates face when they are not independently wealthy. According to the LA Times, Holmes released statement said the ruling, “Continues to erode our nation’s campaign finance laws that were enacted to protect political equality”.

Join us today at 3PM EST for a live Tweetchat with Dr. Kristie Holmes, @DrKristie, using the hashtag #swhelper. This is also week 4 in our Evidence Based Twitter Chats, and we will be looking at using Twitter for Advocacy. In addition to talking with Dr. Holmes, we will also be weighing in on the conversation by adding #McCutcheon to our tweets in protest of the SCOTUS decision.

Nick Cannon Ignites a Conversation about Blackface

Comedian, Rapper, and talk show host, Nick Cannon, has been promoting his new album White People Party Music, and in a brilliant move got people talking about the album by stirring up a little controversy. Nick Cannon dressed in “white face” and posted a video of himself on Instagram impersonating a “white guy”, and the video immediately went viral. Many people are asking why is it offensive for a white person to wear “blackface” and a black person wearing white make-up is not considered as offensive.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

According to USA Today,

“I knew it would spark some controversy,” said Nick Cannon in a live interview on Good Morning America on Monday, “but I felt like it’s a conversation that we needed because we all have differences we embrace. I talk about it in my standup all the time. It is not a new conversation, but a topic of sensationalism.”

Even using the term “whiteface,” he said, “I don’t know what that is. … This term that we created. I was doing a character impression. Blackface is about oppression.”  Read Full Article

Nick Cannon articulates his actions as being an act or impression versus an act of oppression, and this is why many people say he gets a “pass” on wearing “whiteface”.  Many people do not see “whiteface” as offensive because it has never been used as a strategy to influence bias against an ethnic or racial group, and “white face” is not connected to the sense memories of whites to a time when they were severely oppressed for being white.

Minstrel_PosterBillyVanWare_editAdditionally, the beauty standard is white, and being white or light-skinned has always been looked at as being more desirable. For those who may be unaware, some darker skinned people avoid the sun during the summer in an effort not to get any darker, and there are also skin whiteners in the form of bleaches and creams to chip away at a skin’s melanin.

For people who don’t know why “blackface” is viewed as offensive, I’ll give a brief explanation. “Blackface” was used to portray African-Americans, not as people, but as caricatures. Emphasizing big lips and hair for comedy. I’m generations removed from the height of the “blackface” era, yet I’m offended by it, and I’m not necessarily offended by the color on their faces. What offends me is the exaggerated features of what the performers thought black people looked like, and more importantly how they portrayed that black person.

Society often validates white skin as being more amazing and better. While someone can make a person who is white into a caricature, it in no way damages or influences bias against that racial group. Having Nick Cannon dress up in whiteface doesn’t negatively affect how society views people who are white. There have been other instances such as Julianne Hough wearing “blackface,” in which I felt did not give rise to the sort of scrutiny she received.

Susan "Crazy Eyes" Warren on the Left, Julianne Hough on the Right
Susan “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the Left, Julianne Hough on the Right

Julianne Hough did not exaggerate any one of her features, and she was not unnaturally dark. Julianne probably got a spray tan, but if she was in her street clothes, I would think “hmm why is she so dark? She looks like a young Tan Mom.” The only reason why we knew she was in “blackface” was because she was going as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren from the popular show, in which I have yet to watch, Orange is the New Black.

The main reason, I believe Julianne should not have received as much flack is because she went as a “character” and not a “caricature.”  Julianne Hough was a portraying a black character that was already in existence; a character that is developed. Although I am not offended by Julianne Hough, I think that she could have gone as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren using her own skin color.

Why is “blackface” acceptable sometimes, and other times it is not? It all has to do with context, and why the person is doing what they are doing. For example when Robert Downey Jr. was playing a Kirk Lazaras on the movie “Tropic Thunder” his purpose wasn’t to make fun of African-Americans, it was to poke fun at method actors.

I think for blackface to become less offensive we need to look at the larger issue. We need to get more multicultural television shows that show black people as… people, and we need to have more African-Americans in mainstream television shows. By not having a bigger presence in mainstream television, black people are still vulnerable to the stereotypes and adverse effects of “blackface.” There is progress being made on that front, but we need more.

I am Getting My MSW, but I Do Not Want to be a “Social Worker”

As I finish up my first year in graduate school, I am reflecting on the reasons I chose to enroll in a social work program. First, I want to change to world, and I want to help as many people as I can. I  know I cannot change everything, but I can motivate and empower other people to help to make a bigger impact.

My passion for social justice drove me into the Masters of Social Work (MSW) program, and I was ready to set forth and learn how to save the world. Now during my whole time at school, I get ask the same questions over and over again about why I am studying social work and the reasons behind it. Once I tell people I am getting my MSW, they certainly jump to conclusions about my career path.

  • You are not going to make any money.
  • You are going to take kids away from bad parents.
  • Oh! I know a social worker at my school. She’s great!
  • Good for you; that job is so challenging.
  • Why are you learning about fundraising if you are going to be a social worker? They are so different.
  • What population do you want to work with?
  • What therapy method do you prefer?
  • Why do you want to help poor people?
  • You need to get licensed right away.
  • You should memorize the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM)
  • Take a course on Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) for sure
  • You need to focus and take as many advanced clinical courses as possible.

Sadly, I have heard all of these statements and more related ones too many times. The frustrating part about these comments is not the fact people are trying to help or learn more about my career, but they are judging my career choice before I get a chance to explain my reasoning. The worst part about this is that people who call themselves social workers are the most judgmental. They believe in their definition of social work, and what I want to do is not it.

They in some ways diminish my motivation for social change and push more towards therapy. Even the educational requirements are steering away from social justice initiatives and focusing on therapy. Is that what social work is now? Cheap therapy? If you would like more information on the subject, there is a book called Unfaithful Angels: How Social Work has Abandoned its Mission by Harry Spect and Mark E. Courtney. The book is a great read for any social worker out there trying to evaluate their roles as a social worker in society.

As many of you know, the definition of social work is vast and expanding. You can read about the great things and various aspects of the social work profession/opportunities in other articles on this website. It is not just counseling or adhering to the needs of individuals, but much more.  This can include anything related to helping individuals including but not limited to social policy analysis, program development, community assessment, advocacy, community organizing, development, organizational management, case management, research, social change and more, not just counseling.

With this being said, it is sad that many schools and professionals are telling students every day their focus should be on therapy and clinical intervention. I do not discredit the wonderful work clinical social workers do because it is necessary. I just want the opportunity for my fellow students and I to mold our own definitions of social work based on our personal and communal factors. We should focus our education, internships, jobs based on what we like to do and what we feel is necessary. We certainly would not tell clients what to do based on our own perceived conceptions of their identity, then we should not do it for social work students.

For clarification, I do plan on being a social worker, but I am going to be MY definition of a social worker. I plan to be a nonprofit executive leading human service agencies. I am getting my MSW to understand the perspective of oppressed individuals, and how my good friend says it, put the human back in human services.

If a label is part of my identity, I will dictate what I believe the label means. In order for you to know, you need to ask me instead of judging based on your preconceived notions. Rather than tell me what to do, maybe you could offer your advice or assistance if I ask for it.  Our future is determined by our decisions, and we students need to learn that for ourselves. Honestly, you’d be surprised how much we know already, and you could learn more about us if you do not jump to conclusions. 

Seeing Beyond the Negative: How Understanding Culture Adds Perspective


Whilst working in local authority (Child Welfare Agency) as an auditor and conference chair, I have been involved in several child protection cases involving North Korean families. Child abuse is a complicated issue and there is much research on families in the UK from different cultural backgrounds and a lot of information can be found by looking at the Serious Case Review Biannual Analysis which is what I often do when researching issues to do with child abuse. As social workers we are often focused on some of the most difficult aspects of humanity, and our need to find out what the negatives are almost prevents us to see what the positive aspects of people’s worlds and cultures are.

Serious case reviews are a well researched government sponsored data gathering which is put into information which is easy to assimilate and not full of academic jargon based on class room discussions. The Biannual Analysis deals with real families that we as practitioners work with every day, unfortunately these reviews consist of children and families struck by tragedy. What did the Biannual Analysis tell me about North Korean families? Much in social work is based on hunches and anecdotes, my current inquiry was why are so many North Korean families being referred to children’s services and why was the nature of the child abuse so similar? I have not been able to find any information that can help me which might be a good thing bearing in mind the criteria that cases are submitted for SCR’s.

I have been involved with cases which have similar factors, they show the impact of parents who as children were abused or had harsh treatment in their past, and who may also have had recent post traumatic stress from possible torture or fear and anxiety of retribution or separation from family who may be at risk back home.

Also, I made an information request to the ICS department, ( ICS is our data capture system)which did not show huge numbers subject to child protection plans, but certainly showed significant numbers of children who are subject to child welfare services. This particular local authority has a high number of North Korean families. Other facts about their circumstances and child in need support may provide us with some interesting insights into these families who have sought refuge in a far away country.

As a social worker I am challenged to look after my wellbeing by eating healthy food, however local to where I work, there is a great Japanese street food restaurant that does fast take away orders. This is where I normally grab something to eat, served by the same familiar woman who takes my order and shouted it out in what I thought was Japanese to chefs busy cooking on open fires in a row of street kitchens.

Almost suddenly in these times of austerity in London, a new Japanese restaurant opened around the corner to my office and as I have no commitment to anyone place I tried it out and began ordering my take away from the new place. A few months later a familiar face greeted me in the new restaurant, the smiling friendly face of the lady who formally shouted out my order with limited softness of face, in the bustling open street kitchen.

She greeted me like a long lost friend and was pleased to see me in the shop that she was now working in. She seemed very much more relaxed, possibly because the restaurant was fairly new and did not have as many customers as the street stall and she could actually have a conversation with me instead of the conveyor belt like system which kept the street kitchen lively and cheap.

Mi Yung and I started talking about her journey to Britain, and I was overwhelmed by her declaration about how she did not care if she woke up and it was raining (in Britain we moan about the weather) she was happy when it rained because she had the freedom to work where she wanted and to stand up to her bosses if she felt that her rights were being impinged. She had loved working in the street kitchen but the quickness of the serving had not allowed her to talk with people and this was what she wanted to do more than ever.

Her journey to freedom was based on the need to interact with people when she wanted and to be truly happy, working in this new restaurant meant that she could grow in a way that most people who are born into less restricted societies take for granted. And although she needed a job she expressed to me the need to work somewhere that she could be free and meet and greet the world.

Now, my inquiry is much more based on the positive aspects of the North Korean society in the area; how to mobilise the positive aspects of people like Mi Yung who see the world with eyes based on growth not just on past abuse or being stuck in trauma. Understanding culture is important for social workers, but we do not always need to learn from negative occurrences of adult violence or child abuse.

We can learn by understanding and interacting more with people who have come through adversity attempting to catch glimpses of how they remain resilient and what aspects of their positive worlds can aid those who are not so able to let go of their past. In terms of child protection the local authority should talk to people like Mi Yung to gain an understanding or what support can be put in place to aid and support North Korean families. With regard to social workers intervening with families of similar backgrounds, this lively discussion seems to have been missing in the past decade of social work transformation.

Forensic Social Work and Its Importance in the 21st Century

In reflecting on how my career has formulated, particularly in the fields of criminal justice, human services and social work, I often wondered where I fit in; particularly when discussing traditional social work models, practices and approaches.  I knew I always wanted to work in the criminal justice environment, not necessarily as a sworn law enforcement official, but in a capacity that addressed the needs of delinquents, adult offenders and prisoners.  This venue, during the early to mid-20th century, unfortunately wasn’t always readily available to social workers, let alone forensic social workers.

Clinical work, specifically, was geared towards counselors and psychologists in criminal justice settings.  The role of the social worker, if any, represented that of a case manager at best.  Further, when attempting to market or explain what a forensic social worker was, the responses in most instances were either of confusion or an unawareness that the practice existed.

What is Forensic Social Work

llustration: John Michael Yanson
llustration: John Michael Yanson

Ironically, social work has a long standing history of practice in the justice sector, as well as the other more noted, child welfare and social services roles.  According to the National Organization of Forensic Social Work website (www.nofsw.org),

” Forensic social work is the application of social work to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems. This specialty of our profession goes far beyond clinics and psychiatric hospitals for criminal defendants being evaluated and treated on issues of competency and responsibility. A broader definition includes social work practice which in any way is related to legal issues and litigation, both criminal and civil. Child custody issues, involving separation, divorce, neglect, termination of parental rights, the implications of child and spouse abuse, juvenile and adult justice services, corrections, and mandated treatment all fall under this definition” (NOFSW website).

As one can gauge, forensic social work has long been a practice in various traditional social work capacities.  Though early in application, forensic social work was commonly associated with the legal field (Barker & Brannon, Forensic Social Work Legal Aspects of Professional Practice, 2000); it now encompasses a much broader representation in the criminal justice system and ancillary justice related services.

Forensic Social Work Today

Forensic Social Work in the 21st century continues to be a critical component of not only traditional social work and criminal justice systems, but it has expanded to cover more globally related human rights and social justice concerns.  As various academic institutions are now incorporating forensic social work courses into their respective curriculums, BSW and MSW students are becoming more aware and interested in pursuing this specialization.  Dr. Yolanda M. Byrd, LCSW, Director of Field Education at Winston-Salem State University stated “she has seen a continued interest from her BSW students in forensic social work; particularly in obtaining field education placements.”

As the latter part of the 20th century dealt with establishing the practice of Forensic Social Work, the 21st century will reflect more of a presence in various venues encompassing micro and macro approaches to the field, not only within the United States but more globally.  In speaking with the National Organization of Forensic Social Work President, Dr. Tina Maschi, LCSW, Associate Professor of Social Work, Fordham University, she noted  “in the 21st century the complex social issues, such as mass incarceration, necessitate that we use an integrated approach that incorporates clinical, policy, and community organizational skills to build the capacities of individuals, families, and communities to address them.”

Forensic Social Work in the Future

Looking ahead, you will see more forensic social workers represented in all aspects of society representing not only clients in criminal justice practice settings, but as administrators, social activists, academicians, and social justice change agents internationally.  As social work curriculums, both undergraduate and graduate, continue to broaden their course offerings and specializations to include forensic social work, you will see a continued increase in diplomas, degrees and certifications being obtained by future social work students.  Here in North Carolina, the need to have forensic social workers represented in the criminal justice system, specifically the penal system is a growing need and viable area of interest for local and state legislators.  For those interested, I strongly encourage you to attend the NOFSW annual conference in July.

Photo Credit via NASW

Twitter Usage in Turkey Went Up After Being Banned


In the United States, many casual social media users shy away from twitter because they believe only celebrities use it. However, in other countries where governments seek to control access and the flow of information to its citizen, twitter has helped to facilitate free speech for citizens where speech is regulated. In addition, twitter also provides a free and open access vehicle to facilitate community organizating and advocacy at a grassroots level which is why the Turkish government has moved to ban Twitter access to Turkish citizens.

After Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan procured a court order to ban citizens from navigating to the social media website, Twitter usage went up by 138% in the country. Users where able to work around the ban using GoogleDNS or OpenDNS. Erdogan insists the usage of Twitter is an invasion of privacy, and he vows to eradicate the social media platform unless Twitter removes what they have deemed as illegal content.

According to Reuters,

Turkey’s ban on Twitter ahead of bitterly contested elections brought a furious reaction at home and abroad on Friday, with users of the social networking service denouncing the move as a “digital coup” and the president expressing his disapproval.

A court blocked access to Twitter after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s defiant vow, on the campaign trail on Thursday ahead of March 30 local elections, to “wipe out” the social media service, whatever the international community had to say about it.  Read Full Article

Despite the epic fail to ban Twitter use, the government is now taking a more aggressive action by disabling use of Twitter at the IP level which can still be circumvented by a VPN (virtual private network). However, once again, Twitter has flexed its social media muscles by releasing a tweet that some people may be woefully unaware. You don’t actually need internet service to be able to tweet or receive tweets because Twitter also works on SMS technology.


Suicide and Depression: Using a Holistic Approach to Assessing Risk Factors

L'Wren Scott

L’Wren Scott, famous fashion designer and girlfriend of Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger, was found hanging from a doorknob which is being investigated as an apparent suicide. She was age 49 at the time of her death. New York Daily News reported that Scott was depressed, had financial strain, and was experiencing relationship problems.

What were the warning signs, and would a doctor consider financial strain and relationship problems risk factors for depression and subsequently suicide?  If a someone exhibited these risk factors while under the care of  a health care professional, would these risk factors be identified and addressed as social risk factors for depression?

Major Depressive Disorder is one of the most common mental health problems in the United States. Every year about 6.7% of adults in the United States experience Major Depressive Disorder. Throughout the lifespan, women are 70 % more likely than men to experience depression.

Common depression screening tools such as the MINI International Neuropsychiatric Interview do not screen for social risk factors of depression such as relationship problems or financial strain, although these are two major risk factors for depression. Rather, depression screening tools use a conventional symptoms-based approach to screening for depression and do not consider the whole person. The symptoms-based approach uses a mathematical formula to establish a depression diagnosis. Common symptoms of depression examined in existing screening tools include:

  • Feeling sad or “empty”
  • Feeling hopeless, irritable, anxious, or guilty
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Feeling very tired
  • Not being able to concentrate or remember details
  • Not being able to sleep, or sleeping too much
  • Overeating, or not wanting to eat at all
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems.

Diagnosing depression using a symptom-based approach ignores the foundational causes of depression in a person’s development and the risk factors they have been exposed to in their life span. In social work, we use a biopsychosocial perspective where human behavior is the product of interactions between an individual and their environment. Shouldn’t our screening process use this same perspective? Research suggests that social risk factors for depression such as divorce, financial strain, relocation, or death of a loved one are just as serious as biological or psychological risk factors for depression.

Social workers can be key change agents in changing the traditional screening process and engage with patients to begin to understand the whole person. Engaging with patients in a helping relationship can assist the treatment team in working with patients in a more holistic manner where the interactions between the individual and their environment are considered in their treatment plan.

If we move away from the limited, symptoms-based approach to depression and engage with patients to explore social risk factors of depression, can we prevent individuals from committing suicide?

If you like this blog and want more, follow me on Twitter @karenwhiteman

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Fox News

Cancer Biologists Can’t Solve Cancer by Themselves

The Problem Behind the Problem

CancerBiologyCancer biologists cannot solve the cancer problem by themselves, nor can anyone else for that matter.  I’m a cancer biologist, so what do I mean when I say this?  Allow me to explain.  I’m not talking about understanding the staggering complexity of cancer, which requires many researchers ranging from engineers to physicians.  That’s another topic, for another (many other) article. What I want to talk about here is a higher order complexity at the societal level that prevents people from having access to cancer treatment, or to something as basic as a preventive measure.

The fact of the matter is, no matter how good our cancer treatments or preventive knowledge become, if people don’t have access to them or cannot implement them, then their effectiveness is not applicable.  This is why advocates in the fields of public health and social welfare are so important.  Simply teaching people in third world countries to wash their hands regularly can have a tremendous impact on decreasing mortality.  Washing hands isn’t “rocket science”—it’s “people science”; and, it’s quite effective against the spread of germs. While hand washing doesn’t prevent cancer, it’s a great example of how public health information can go a long way in dealing with healthcare issues.

Case Study: Effective Pesticides, More Crops, More Cancer

The plight of migrant farm workers is a great example of the societal complexity that is beyond the prowess of cancer biology.  Migrant farm workers are exposed to chemical pesticides at doses that cause cancer, among other ailments.  Let’s take a step back and look at the web of problems beyond what can be seen through the lens of a microscope.  In addition to the cancer problem, there is the public health issue of widespread chemical exposure, the lack of legal representation required get compensation and to secure future prevention, and the lack of access to health care, let alone the inability to afford health care. Thus, the problem is actually much bigger than just cancer. Having more effective chemotherapies only addresses one issue in this web.

Seeing the Whole Elephant, Not Just It’s Parts

During graduate school, I attended a commencement ceremony for graduate students from a biology department.  The commencement speaker was a biochemist whose career had spanned many decades, which gave him a front row seat to the intellectual explosion that occurred in the past 60 years of molecular biology.  Speaking to the dozens of graduate students on stage whom were about to be awarded their degrees, he gave them a charge.  He reflected upon the ways in which his generation had solved many societal problems, but acknowledged that in the wake of their success, they created new ones.  “This is why we need you,” he said, “to solve the problems that we have created.”

Indeed, this charge will remain true for any future generation. Science has produced many materials and chemicals for the purposes of human flourishing—with no sign of letting up—but these inventions can negatively impact human health in unintended ways.   As always, disadvantaged populations are the most vulnerable to these negative effects.  As people who are privileged with adequate information, it falls upon us to ensure that others are protected. It’s not just about inventing better treatments, which is part of the answer.  It’s about making sure that people are treated humanely, which can be done regardless of whether or not treatments improve.

Photo Credit: Wisconsin University

In Defense of Justin Bieber and Other Child Celebrities

I was pretty unimpressed with the rather ugly responses to Justin Bieber’s misdemeanours back in January. Sure, some of the reactions were comical, like this YouTube video, and RuPaul’s tweet of his rather beautifully made-up mugshot in which I was told it’s transphobic appearance was no offense intended.

Justin Bieber mugshot profileHowever, an online White House petition was created to have him deported from the US, for doing something that a good many if not most teenage boys do, seems pretty mean-spirited and exaggerated to me. Particularly as Americans have, until now, been happy to claim him as their own, and I didn’t even know he was Canadian until this hit the news. According to the Daily Mail,

The petition created by a Detroit resident asking to eject 19-year-old pop star from the U.S. and have his green card revoked has drawn nearly 261,000 signatures as of Friday morning, becoming the second most popular cause in the three-year history of the White House site. At 204,500 signatures, a petition to declare the extremist Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization is a distant second, followed by a plea to pardon CIA leaker Edward Snowden in third with 153,000 signatures. Read More

If it were within my influence, I’d lobby for it to be illegal for kids under 18 to be signed by record labels and Hollywood studios. Perhaps that’s an over-reaction in the other direction, but it seems that there are plenty opportunities on social media for kids to self-promote from their bedrooms, rather than being shoved in the public eye by money-making media moguls.

The blatant exploitation of child celebrities by the music, film and television industry has never sat well with me. Michael Jackson is a classic example of what happens when children are exposed to the crazy hype of modern entertainment from too early an age.

Even in NZ, the media seemed to be getting back at Lorde, for her tweets about their behaviour on her post-Grammy arrival into the country, by broadcasting explicit details of her sickness that made her 20 minutes late for her concert the same evening.

Let’s have a bit of compassion and generosity with these kids. No other 19-year-old boy would be deported for speeding on drugs and alcohol at 4am. I’m not condoning Justin’s behaviour and I know he’s considered a role model for kids. But he didn’t set out to be the model teenager — that’s a by-product of his fame, which was engineered by adults.

So, as adults we need to take responsibility for the direct and indirect consequences if we’re going to profit from putting kids prematurely in the limelight. We need to protect them, mentor them, and above all forgive them.

Healing Our Most Dangerous Communities: Putting the ‘Social’ back in to Social Work

Last week, a British Court heard how Police Officer Keith Blakelock died in an estate in North London which was identified by Scotland Yard as being “impossible to police.” The Broadwater Farm estate was described by the Chief Superintendent Colin Couch, as a “working-class, multi-ethnic area” with a notoriety for the sale and use of drugs, and PC Blakelock died in October 1985 after riots broke out across Tottenham.

Keith Blakelock
Officer Keith Blakelock

Thirty years later, the problem of “impossible to police neighbourhoods” is still as prevalent as ever. In almost every country in the world, there are inner-city neighbourhoods where crime, drugs and prostitution plague the community. Cities across Jamaica, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States are all well-known for their troubled areas. And yet, there are hundreds more cities across the world, whilst they may have lower murder rates, which still suffer from the effects of poverty, drug addiction and unemployment. We all know those places where it is not safe to walk or where you would not want to raise your children.

When you actually take the time to not just look at, but really see and understand these communities, you immediately discover the inherent potential and beauty within them. This is no more evident than in the photography of Chris Arnade, who has taken thousands of photos of homeless people and sex workers in Hunts Point in the Bronx, one of New York City’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Through his photography, Chris states how he aims to “capture conventional snapshots of unconventional people.” However, what the photographs do best, is capture the humanity of even the most excluded and berated individuals; a humanity that we all share.

As a student Social Worker I undertook my first placement in an area of Sheffield that was notorious for gangs, shootings, violence and drugs. It was an area, I admit, that I had previously avoided and it would be dishonest to say that I was not a little nervous about working there. However, within the first few weeks, I found myself in love, not only with the eclectic an exciting range of people but also with the general sense of comradery and community that can only be found in neighbourhoods where there is a shared concern. The passion and involvment of individuals manifested itself in to local groups and charities who worked tirelessly to support and improve their community. Behind the poor reputation of the neighbourhood lay numerous individuals and families who were fighting for a better world. There was so much intelligence, compassion and dilligence waiting to be utilized even in this, the most “broken” of communities.

I believe that in the UK, we have lost the ‘social’ in Social Work. The true value of Social Work would be in immersing ourselves fully in these communities. Energy needs to be focussed on getting to know these neighbourhoods and then, not only supporting people on an individual basis around issues of health and housing, but also advocating for better resources and support for those living in poverty. We need to lobby at a political level and act as a voice for the voiceless.

Radical Social Work is not a new idea, but it is certainly one that has fallen by the wayside since the spread of neoliberalism which has pushed privatization, the centrality of the market and crucially, the individual as separate from the whole. As Social Workers we must draw on Critical and Radical Social Work to identify oppressive functions in society and analyze them to create social change. “No man is an island” and we must accept that a profession which seeks to heal social problems, such as child abuse, addiction and prostitution, will not be successful as long as we continue to work on a one-to-one basis with people.

No neighbourhood should remain a no-go area or indeed a complete ‘write-off’. Social Work, if utilized correctly, has the potential to heal these damaged communities. However, the key lies in ensuring that neighbours know and care for each other; that inequality does not go unchallenged and that people are never seen as less than the sum of all their parts. There is no such thing as a neighbourhood full of ‘junkies’ or ‘criminals’; there are only neighbourhoods full of varied, fascinating and important human beings.

Careers in the Various Types of Human Service Organizations

The human services field is a broad one, and it encompasses various organizations that meet the needs of individuals and families in our society using an interdisciplinary knowledge base. Human service organizations focus on both prevention and remediation of problems, and they advocate for policy changes that benefit at-risk groups in our communities. There are many different types of human services organizations, and each specializes in working with a different group of individuals.

Organizations for children

Social Worker with ChildHuman service organizations for children work with the youngest members of society to prevent abuse and neglect, advocate for policy change, work with families to build upon strengths and resolve weaknesses, and assist disadvantaged children in reuniting with their biological families or finding new home situations when appropriate.

Examples of human service careers working with children include:

  • Children’s protective service workers
  • Community social workers
  • School psychologists
  • Children’s mental health specialists
  • Child abuse workers
  • Probation officers and
  • Juvenile court liaisons

Professionals working in human service organizations for children often focus on building relationships with the families they serve, encouraging independent thinking and recognizing both strengths and weaknesses in the children and the family unit. These professionals are familiar with a wide range of community resources that assist children and families, and they make referrals to outside agencies as necessary.

Organizations for the elderly

At the other end of the spectrum are human service organizations that serve the geriatric population. According to aarp.org, approximately 90-percent of seniors have a stated desire to age in place. In order to do so safely, in home services are sometimes needed as the result of deteriorating physical or cognitive health and related safety concerns. Adult social service professionals often step in to assist with recognizing whether or not aging in place is a realistic goal, coordinating services and investigating protective service claims. When aging in place is no longer believed to be appropriate, many seniors enter assisted living facilities or nursing homes. In these facilities, professionals including licensed clinical social workers, nurse case managers, activities coordinators, social service assistants and mental health counselors provide assistance with the sometimes difficult transition from home to facility life and the day to day needs of the senior.

 Organization for disadvantaged populations 

Some human service professionals assist the most disadvantaged members of society rather than focusing on a particular age group. Substance abuse counselors, probation officers, halfway house counselors, public safety and disaster workers, migrant and immigrant case managers and mental health workers are but a few of the professionals who fall into this category of human service workers. These professionals use many of the same skill sets that other human service professionals use, but their focus is often on stabilizing individuals or safely and productively reintegrating them into society. Crisis management is a necessary skill for these professionals and many use it on a daily basis. Their focus is also on empowering clients, offering support and utilizing effective strategies to modify or reverse troublesome behaviors.

Organizations focused on advocacy

Finally, there are human service professionals who focus on advocacy, education or governing policies. While these individuals work less directly with individuals in our communities, their contributions to society as a whole should not be discounted. Human service careers focusing on policy and education include becoming a college level educator, working in the office of a local, state or federal politician, taking a leadership role in a non-profit organization, pursuing a career as a grant writer or advising schools, nursing homes, hospitals or other human service organizations. These positions are often more administrative, and they are well suited for the individual who enjoys public speaking, grant writing, research, creating policies and taking on a leadership position offering oversight to others within a human services organization. Many of these positions require advanced degrees.

The human service field offers vast career opportunities serving various at-need individuals in society. All of these opportunities have one thing in common, the need for trained, skilled human service professionals continues to grow, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a continued rise in employment opportunities within this field of up to 31-percent through 2022. With so many opportunities and the continued potential for future growth, there are many great reasons to consider a career in a human services organization.

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